Labor struggle in the American South has a long and proud tradition. From the historic textile mill strikes of 1934, to streetcar workers in 1949 Atlanta, to sanitation workers in Memphis and St. Petersburg, FL in 1968, working folks have organized to control social relations and conditions of labor in their workplaces, and to regain a semblance of their own humanity in the face of attacks from company bosses, police, and government officials. And this was all initiated with little or no formal union infrastructure or support. Yet Southern labor history is portrayed as backward or underdeveloped in relation to the North, with its long tradition of unions in large industrial cities like New York, Detroit, and Chicago. Instead we see that Southern folks, blacks and whites alike, have struggled for years against bosses running company towns with an iron fist, against Jim Crow segregation pervading workplaces, neighborhoods and cities, and against all authoritarian forces viewing organized labor struggles as the coming terror. These past battles give context to labor movements of the more recent past and present, showing how far society has come, and how far it still must go. When examining the gains and limitations of black liberation and workers’ self-management from the Civil Rights and Black Power era, the 1977 sanitation workers strike in Atlanta is very telling.
Workplace organizing among sanitation workers, by 1977, had a proud history. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, in places like New York City, Cleveland, Atlanta, St. Petersburg, and most famously Memphis in 1968, sanitation workers, as individuals and as organized groups, battled city bosses against slave wages, unsafe working conditions, and for the right to form unions and workplace associations on their own terms. These struggles went hand-in-hand with the black liberation movement, for defeating white supremacy was a challenge met in neighborhoods and in workplaces.
Memphis in 1968 best demonstrated this connection, where wildcat strikes by an all-black workforce against overtly racist city officials became a larger battle for black liberation and community self-management. This struggle eventually saw the involvement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights establishment figures. When Dr. King was assassinated the day after giving a stirring speech to assembled sanitation workers, victory for striking workers followed shortly as much of American liberal official society sympathized with the strikers against the racist city officials. The city recognized the strikers’ call for union recognition, nationally backed by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and conceded to demands for better pay and improved workplace conditions. This scene repeated itself in St. Petersburg and Cleveland later that year. This also occurred in Atlanta in 1970, where civil rights figures, some of whom were newly elected city officials, supported striking sanitation workers threatened with termination by Atlanta’s white mayor Sam Massell.
Fast-forward seven years to the Atlanta of 1977 and something strange, one may think, happened. The script was flipped. The same black officials who supported sanitation workers against firings by a white mayor decided to replace striking city sanitation employees with scabs. This occurred with the full support of many old guard civil rights leaders and organizations, allied with business and civic groups associated with Atlanta’s white power structure during Jim Crow segregation. What explains the apparent about-face by black officials?
The Atlanta strike of 1977 shows the coming of age of a coalition of black and white city officials, along with civic and business elites, under the leadership of the city’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Just seven years earlier Jackson publicly sided with sanitation workers against a white mayor seeking to fire them. Jackson and some members of the civil rights establishment, in positions of local government by the mid-1970s, did not hesitate to marshal the forces of official society against the self-activity of black workers. They allied with white business and civic elites, the same people that just a few years earlier openly supported white supremacist segregation, all in the name of smashing the sanitation workers’ strike by any means necessary.
This showed the open class hatred of black and white elites against working people, a prominent feature of communities in Atlanta for generations. This played out most clearly in times of crisis like the infamous race riot of 1906. Prominent blacks apologized to white officials for the “vices” of working folks in their community who, whites claimed, helped create a climate leading to outright racial violence. These black elites pledged to work with whites to police their community. This occurred, even though many of these same black elites had to defend themselves against white supremacist violence. Yet they still had the nerve to scold black working folks who organized community self-defense against the attacks, calling them lazy, violent, and deficient in virtue.
The coalition of black and white elites 71 years later helped foment class antagonisms that ultimately bubbled to the surface. The difference from 1906 was blacks had a seat at the table of Atlanta city government. The demise of the 1977 sanitation strike appeared to be a blow to the black liberation struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, showing that its mainly reformist victories actually signaled a defeat of the broader movement towards anti-racism and self-government. It signaled to working folks, black and white alike, that the promised land Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of while addressing sanitation workers in Memphis, just a day before he was assassinated, appeared open only to business, political, and religious elites.
Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, 1968
To fully understand conditions leading to the 1977 Atlanta strike, one must first examine perhaps the most famous sanitation workers strike in twentieth century U.S. history. Memphis in 1968 was ruled by social and economic segregation, even after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. These laws, won through years of popular protest, were barely worth the price of the paper they were written on in the eyes of most white civic and business leaders in Memphis.
This was evident in the treatment of city sanitation workers. This job, socially open only to black men, paid such menial wages that most workers lived below the poverty line. After numerous attempts to create a union to counter the city bosses and improve social and material workplace conditions, sanitation workers finally struck in February 1968. What ultimately sparked the strike was the death of two men crushed by faulty garbage trucks. With no formal union support through the national AFSCME leadership, who initially told folks to stay on the job, men organized a complete work stoppage, asking for significant improvements in pay, work conditions, and the right to unionize. Led by mayor Henry Loeb, Memphis city government took a firm line against these individuals that would dare challenge the social, economic, and racial divisions prevailing in Memphis. But it would be white supremacists like Loeb and his ilk who would be left rotting on the trash heap of history by the strike’s end in April 1968.
Unionization efforts began a few years earlier, led within the ranks by T.O. Jones. For his efforts, Jones was fired, but he continued working towards unionization as an organizer for AFSCME Local 1733. By the cold winter of 1968, sanitation workers were tired of workplace conditions, faulty equipment, and pay ranging from $1.65 to $1.85 an hour for laborers and $2.10 for truck drivers. The attitude of city officials was demeaning, telling employees that going on strike was unnecessary and illegal. Besides, sanitation workers were lectured, the benevolent white city fathers took care of them anyway. However, a critical mass of sanitation workers, with strong support from the community, had become sick and tired of the city’s plantation mentality that saw them as nothing more than misbehaving children. Striking workers countered by carrying signs proclaiming “I Am a Man.” It was not simply small economic gains and improved workplace conditions motivating Memphis sanitation men to organize collective labor action. Rather it was a call to change the racist social and economic conditions black folks endured in Memphis. These conditions had fundamentally not changed since the time of slavery. The new society was breaking out of the old order where white supremacy had ruled virtually unchecked.